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Tigers player preview: For Rajai Davis, success depends on the scope of his role

The platoon splits are what they are. Rajai Davis smoked southpaws in 2014 but posted his typical pedestrian numbers against righties. Will the Tigers play to his strengths in 2015 or expand his role into his trouble spots?

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

"Speed is a great asset; but it's greater when it's combined with quickness -- and there's a big difference."
-Ty Cobb

Rajai Davis came to the Tigers prior to the 2014 campaign with the reputation of a guy who can fly on the basepaths, hit enough to help, and play modest defense. He delivered, for the most part. Davis saw nearly 500 plate appearances for a club on its way to a division title.

Davis' playing time was limited a tad by the surprise emergence of J.D. Martinez but Tigers manager Brad Ausmus found ways to keep Davis in the lineup fairly consistently, even prior to the July deadline trade of Austin Jackson.

Watching Davis play defense in center field can sometimes be a bit of a struggle as he takes haphazard routes on occasion, but it was his speed on the basepaths that had the Tigers sniffing around Davis. He stole 36 bags on the campaign with a 77 percent success rate. It was a dose of speed that GM Dave Dombrowski was looking to add in the offseason and there is little doubt that Davis added juice on basepaths that was a rare commodity in the Motor City for several seasons.

It wasn't all about the legs, however. Davis had several stretches of the season where his bat was an important part of the Tigers offense. He strafed lefties from start to finish on the campaign, hitting .356/.382/.557 against them. This was an even larger bump to his positive platoon split against lefties than his established trend in the major leagues.

Most notably on his way to slugging that very impressive .557 versus southpaws was a jaw-dropping moment against Athletics closer Sean Doolittle in late June. Doolittle inherited a three run cushion that night against a listless looking Tigers lineup. However they scratched out three base-runners to set up Davis for the amazing "Down 3 runs, walk off Grand Slam". It was Davis' signature moment for the season.

Contract Status

Davis inked a team-friendly two year, $10 million deal prior to 2014. He will be a free agent after this season barring an extension. Given his production and playing time, it was a reasonable signing in year one and, at the time, there was no real indication he couldn't do something fairly close again in 2015.

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Should Rajai Davis be a strict platoon player? In a bygone era of shorter bullpens and longer benches, he probably would have been. In today's era, however, it's likely he will get stretched out a bit against righties to his detriment. It's here where we have to acknowledge that the spiffy slash-line against lefties in 2014 came attached to a rather meager line of .247/.290/.327 against righties. That screams "platoon" fairly loud.

The Tigers have brought in young Anthony Gose to play in their outfield. In a perfect world, he'll use his skills from the left side of the plate to limit Davis' exposure to the right-handed kryptonite. Gose, however, is yet to prove on the major league level that his bat will play on a regular basis. He does have the defensive chops and the requisite speed. A good start to spring training is fine as well, but will he stick when things start getting real on April 6th? That remains to be seen and part of Davis' fate is attached to Gose's outcome.

Davis should play a fair amount elsewhere, though. Yoenis Cespedes had a fairly healthy 2014 but had always been plagued by consistent small injuries in the two years prior. Davis will probably caddy for him in left field for parts of the season with Gose in center.

Then there is J.D. Martinez. He was a stud in 2014 but that guarantees only so much in 2015. If the glass slipper gets a little tight for him, Davis could grab some playing time off the Martinez plate as well.

The Tigers' reliance on plenty of guys who can't run a lick should also provide Davis with numerous opportunities to pinch-run in the late innings as well. His speed should limit the games where he gets the entire day off. Alex Avila, Miguel Cabrera, Nick Castellanos, and Victor Martinez are a fairly heavy-legged foursome. They will yield the bags to Davis in certain spots this year.

What we've described here is pretty close to the ideal fourth outfielder. Davis brings a solid platoon option, speed for pinch-running situations, "veteran presence" if you value that sort of thing, a reasonable short-term contract, and the ability to play more than one position. Only somewhat inconsistent defense keeps him down a peg.

An ideal bench can be built around a player like Rajai Davis. Again, the question lies in how far is he stretched away from his ideal fourth outfielder and platoon roles. If the pieces fall into place to play to his strengths, he will probably be a marketable commodity one more time in next year's free agent market for a deal at least close to his sheet signed in Detroit.